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928,000 Emails Down, 72,000 to Go: Avoiding the Email Trap

Some time ago, I had lunch with a colleague, a compliance officer for a widely known and respected organization who told me he’d spent several months reading almost one million emails as part of discovery in an employment case. Now he had only about 72,000 more emails to go.
During the discovery process, he reviewed executive correspondence, middle-manager emails, and exchanges between entry-level personnel. He discovered what certain people really thought about their team members, their jobs, roles and the company strategy. He read jokes, some proper and some not, and saw lots of exchanges that had no work purpose whatsoever.
No doubt he learned a lot – probably more than he wanted to know – about his colleagues. However, he did not find any information regarding the plaintiff’s claims. In the end, the company will likely settle, or maybe win the case, which is based on, at best, a dubious claim.
I see this situation all the time in the employment law arena. My conversation got me thinking about today’s litigation realities and the broader implications of electronic communications in the workplace. In light of the flood of emails that are wasteful, distracting, improper, and risky, here are some questions to consider about how we’re using electronic communications:

  • Email is forever. Do people understand that their communications via email, text and social media are permanent, discoverable and could be reviewed in ways they never anticipated by others they have never met? Remember, there’s really no permanent “delete” button or privacy for messages we write and receive in the workplace.
  • Killing time: Many of us complain about being overworked. But have electronic communications made us more efficient or just given us new ways to kill time and think we are busy?
  • The “send” addiction: Why is it that we are so tempted to write and send messages so quickly from our computers and smartphones? Why is it that we haven’t learned that email can pose great organizational and even potential personal risks?
  • How email is used: Companies have rules about the content of emails and other electronic messages because of their potential to go viral and create widespread harm and risk. But if time is so valuable and communication so important, then why aren’t there email rules governing not just what email contains, but also how it is used?

While I can’t answer all of these questions, I do have a few suggestions. Before sending an electronic message, ask yourself:

  • Is this message really necessary?
  • Is this the best way to communicate this information?
  • Would I want this message to last forever?
  • Is it OK with me if anyone in the world read this email?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” it may be best not to send the message(s). After all, you wouldn’t want your message to land in the pile of one million emails to be read by a plaintiff’s attorney or even your own compliance officer.
Stephen Paskoff is the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., a provider of award-winning ethics and compliance learning solutions that help many of the world’s leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Mr. Paskoff can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.

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